I Joyfully Disagree

A few years ago, I had an argument with my brother that lasted a little over four hours. It started around 10pm and ended after 2am. We argued the entire time. By the time we both went to bed, we were slightly upset with one another, but thankfully, the negative energy didn’t carry beyond the following morning.

Several weeks ago, I had an argument with my cousin-in-law. It also started late at night and ended sometime early in the morning. This one involved a myriad of people standing outside at a party, but he and I started it and he and I finished it. At one point, he physically threw me up against a wall, but at no point did I feel that we were actually upset with one another.

I do this a lot.

A couple of days ago, I argued with three of my students for forty-five minutes straight, only stopping because the clock told us we had to. While one of the students grew verbally exasperated with me during the argument, and another seemed to get silently so, at no point did I feel like they wanted the argument to stop.

I do this all the time.

I’m not entirely sure where this personality trait originates. My family argued a lot growing up, and my best friend and I used to (and still do) argue all the time, but I don’t know how much was nurture or how much was nature.

I’ve even bought into the astrological argument on this one, despite telling myself I don’t believe in astrology. While I understand and agree with all of the arguments that explain why I shouldn’t agree with astrology, when it comes to being a Gemini, for me, it simply feels true.

As Astrology.com explains it:

[Talking is] not just idle chatter with these folks… The driving force behind a Gemini’s conversation is their mind. The Gemini-born are intellectually inclined, forever probing people and places in search of information. The more information a Gemini collects, the better. Sharing that information later on with those they love is also a lot of fun, for Geminis are supremely interested in developing their relationships.

Forever probing; collecting and sharing information for the pure joy of it; and developing relationships through this method — it sounds like a person who loves to argue (and who loves to blog).

The argument with my brother started because he endorsed the Confederate flag. The argument with my cousin-in-law started because he supported Judge Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court (and as a lawyer, he thought he knew of what he spoke). The argument with my three students started because they doubted that there is such a thing as altruism.

These are all good arguments.

My brother argued that the Confederate flag doesn’t have to stand for racism. It can also stand for rock n’roll in the way that Bo & Luke Duke were rock n’roll. It can stand for bad-assness, that brand of American individuality that flouts convention and shoots from the hip. After all, it comes from Confederacy not just of slaveholders, but of rebels. My brother’s argument wasn’t wrong.

My cousin-in-law argued that, when it comes to the Supreme Court, the best judges would be textualists. It’s not the Supreme Court’s job to do what it thinks is morally right. Our country’s morals and values should be democratically determined through a legislative process whereby competing interests make their best arguments and majority opinions rule the day (tempered by the minority’s right to continue the argument even when they don’t have the votes, forcing the legislature to arrive at some kind of near consensus). It’s a drawn-out and dirty way to determine our society’s values, but it’s the best method anyone’s come up with yet to balance the rights of the individual with the obligations of a society.

To best protect those democratically determined values, we want a Supreme Court that restrains itself to the values entombed in a text that the people themselves have agreed upon (through their elected representatives). The Supreme Court should not make rulings because of some kind of prevailing societal wind whose presence can sometimes only be sensed by five out of the nine judges. My cousin-in-law’s argument was not wrong.

My students argued that altruism doesn’t exist because human beings have evolved to sometimes seek experiences that will increase the flow of dopamine in the brain (altruism has been shown to be associated with dopamine). In other words, we don’t act altruistic because we’re nice people; we act altruistic because it gets us a little high. Since the unselfish acts required for altruism ultimately reward the self, the act’s altruistic origin is false. My students’ argument was not wrong.

And yet, argue with all of them I did.

I tried to explain to my brother that, while what he was saying wasn’t wrong, the violence of slavery was so horrific that its symbol should only be able to exist in history books and museums. I didn’t disagree that any individual anywhere has the right to wave whatever flag they choose to wave, but just because they have the right to do so doesn’t mean that they should. It’s a sad world when someone tells you that the flag you’re waving creates a sense of visceral fear and/or horror in their hearts, and they have all the facts of history to support their emotional response as a reasonable reaction, and yet, just because you can, you continue to wave the flag. That’s not an act of rebellion; that’s just disrespect and hate.

I tried to explain to my cousin-in-law that, while textualism sounds like a great method for interpreting the law, I’d rather have judges who share the majority’s understanding of fairness, regardless of the intricacies of the text that fairness should be based on. In addition, when a judge has a clear preference for finding for the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals (as Justice Gorsuch has been shown to do), then that judge isn’t capable of (or interested in) defending the people against the moneyed interests who have corrupted the legislative process that is responsible for those texts.

To be a textualist, then, is to be a judge who openly declares his faith in a system of laws whose creation is funded and driven by a combination of multinational corporations and the richest individuals who run them. Corporations do not need any more influence in our government than they already have, but the confirmation of Justice Gorsuch gave them not just one more representative, but one more incredibly powerful representative whose preference for the corporate interest will have an effect for generations.

I tried to explain to my students that, while altruistic acts ultimately reward the individual with dopamine, that doesn’t mean altruism doesn’t exist. For two reasons, the first of which is a question of timing, and the second of which is a question of semantics — of where you locate the meaning of altruism.

The process of altruism leading to an increase in dopamine is an evolved process, which means that at some point, some creature (possibly pre-chordates) did something altruistic, and then, and only then, was the dopamine triggered, the joyful experience of which created the drive to do something nice again, even if only to get a little buzzed again.

The same process probably happens in the development of young children: first they do something nice (probably because they were taught to), and then, and only then, can the dopamine be triggered.

But until they (chordates or children) actually commit the altruistic act, they can’t know that it will result in the joyful release of dopamine, and so, wouldn’t the impulse to altruism have to come first, rather than the reward of the dopamine?

Even if a child only commits an altruistic act because their parent(s) taught them that it’s right to do so, they must first do so not because of the reward they’ll receive (which they know nothing about) but because it’s the right thing for them to do.

The second reason is that it doesn’t actually matter how the drive to be altruistic evolved. Obviously, for social creatures such as ourselves, being altruistic makes it easier to live among the group and, hence, to survive long enough to create the next generation of altruists, which of course passes on the genes for altruism (including too, perhaps, the genes for listening to one’s elders). But this doesn’t change the fact that the person doing the altruistic act does so to be helpful.

Yes, there is a biological and evolutionary reward, but if there’s one thing that defines the human species, it’s that we’ve evolved to transcend our bodies, hence the evolutionary and transcendent gifts of language, culture, and technology. Just because something finds it origin in our biology doesn’t mean we ought to locate its meaning there as well.

The meaning of altruism exists beyond the body — this is in some ways its definition: a helpful act extending from one’s body and through which nothing good is expected in return. Just because something good is returned (the joyful flood of dopamine) doesn’t discount the fact that nothing good was expected. It’s that lack of an expectation (factual or not) that defines altruism; not the gene that floods the brain inside our bodies, but the lack of an expectation that something good will come to us from outside of our bodies.

It was a long and complex argument with many twists and turns and a healthy amount of crossover, and by the end, we seem to agree to disagree. My students are damn smart, and they know, themselves, how to make an argument.

Regardless, this is who I am: the Gemini who’s going to argue with you, not because I’m angry (rarely) or passionate (often), but because it just feels so damn fun to do.

Boston Defense

I’ve been spending the last few weeks trying to understand what it means to be a fan from Boston.

The topic first came up in my classroom, when two of my colleagues (one of whom is a Yankees fan and the other of whom is a Lebron fan) accused Boston of being a terrible place to play sports. Later that day, I learned about an incident at a recent Red Sox game when a bunch of Boston fans yelled racist slurs at an opposing player, an incident that sparked a national conversation about racism in Boston.

I am a Boston fan, and I know Boston is racist because Bill Russell said Boston is racist. As a lifelong Celtics fan who was raised on the original Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, I love and revere Bill Russell, and if this person whom I love tells me Boston is racist, I have to believe him, just as I would have to believe Tom Brady if he told me Vince Wilfork was gay.

Russell’s statement is corroborated by players in a variety of leagues. There is no dispute of this. I know Boston is racist.

But Boston also isn’t racist. The very next night at the Red Sox game, the entire stadium gave a standing ovation to the opposing player who received those slurs, and that too is a testament to the quality of the fanbase.

There are racists among us. We know this. But we don’t want the racists to define us.

We want to be defined by one thing: our ability to make a difference on the court or on the field.

It means something to play a home game in Boston. I know home teams everywhere have the advantage, but in Boston, it’s more than an advantage. It’s a legacy. Bill Russell (and Red Auerbach) gave us that legacy, and that is one of the reasons we will always love him. Together, Russell & Auerbach taught us not to expect anything less from our teams than a championship (a lesson Tom Brady and Bill Belicheck have been reinforcing for almost fifteen years now).

As fans, we see ourselves as having one job. When the visiting team comes to town, we want them to get nervous to play in front of us. We’re not on the court or on the field, and we don’t have the talent or the discipline to develop a career in professional sports, but we do have one skill: we can get fucking rowdy, and even though we’re stuck in the seats, we can use our words and our noise to get inside their heads (not to mention the heads of the refs, who, it turns out, are really affected by home-court crowds).

That’s the one thing we can do to help our city win a championship, and we take that job very seriously.

While that rowdiness is directed at the opposing team, it has the additional benefit of charging up our players. If, as a player for the home team, you need the crowd to give you energy in the fourth quarter, the ninth inning, or the third period, you can count on Boston to give it you.

And because of that, we — the Boston crowd — can make a real difference in the game. We know we do.

As a player, that’s what you should expect from us. It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black or Canadian, if you play hard enough to stay competitive, then the fans of Boston can provide the energy you need to take it the rest of the way. We cannot give you talent, but we can give you energy; and in the playoffs, energy makes the difference. As Bill Russell once said, “The great reward is watching the other team slowly suffocate.”

But it’s not just the racist thing, or the energy thing, that makes Boston fans who we are.

Two nights ago, in game five of a seven-game series, the Celtics needed a win at home. The story of the series is that the Celtics fought tooth and nail to win two games at home, and then they got blown out of the water for two games on the road, making themselves look very, very bad on the national stage.

During the first of those road games (game 3), a young player on the opposing team named Kelly Oubre charged and shoved one the Celtics players, a white doofus named Kelly Olynyk. Now some people hate Olynyk (maybe rightfully so), but the doofus actually plays the game well sometimes, draining threes when they matter, playing defense with a real sense heart (if not always real smarts), and even causing turnovers at crucial points in the game.

Anyway, in game three, Oubre shoved Olynyk, Olynyk went flying, and controlled chaos erupted on the floor. When everything settled down, Oubre got ejected from game three and suspended for game four.

All of which meant that Oubre’s first game back after the incident was this one, game five, when the series came back to Boston.

Oubre is not a starting player. But about five minutes into the game, when the Celtics had demonstrated that this wasn’t going to be the same kind of team the Wizards faced in Washington and that the game was probably not going to go the Wizards’ way, the Boston crowd started chanting, “We want Oubre! We want Oubre!” Oubre hadn’t played yet. He was still sitting on the bench. And the Boston fans were calling him out (later in the game, the chant would change to something more profane).

That’s also what it means to be from Boston. It means that when the opposing team comes to town, we’re going to talk shit to them. We’re like those guys clustered around two fighters in the street. We’re not in the fight ourselves, but man, we’re gonna talk shit to anyone whose trying to beat our boys at home. We can’t be in the ring (which is why we can’t wear the ring), but we can talk shit if it helps our boys defend the home turf.

I love that about us.

It’s just that sometimes, the shit we say can be rather shitty.

Here’s another story. A week or so ago, soon after the racist slur incident, a fan used the jumbotron at Fenway Park to propose to his girlfriend, making the grandest gesture he could think of. And the girl said no….on the jumbotron.

And what did the Boston crowd do? It started chanting, “She said no! She said no!”

That’s ridiculous, of course, but it’s also hilarious. It doesn’t take into account how devastated that man must have felt, nor how embarrassed that woman had to be, which means in some real humane sense, it was a completely shitty thing for the crowd to do, but it’s also hilarious.

(There’s a reason Louie C.K. will always be a Boston comic, regardless of where he lives or how big he gets. With Louie, everything that is shitty about life is also hilarious. Using a master’s control of his craft, Louie’s stand-up bits and television shows demonstrate in exacting and emotional detail how shitty life human existence can be in the twenty-first century, but they also make us experience how funny it can be at the exact same timeThat’s a sensibility you get from living in Boston.)

And I love that about us. We can be shitty and funny at the exact same time and as an entire crowd: tens of thousands of people being shitty and funny together. It’s great.

And it’s part of what makes Boston Boston. And it’s why “I love that dirty water….”

Change the Channel

This is all just a TV show. That’s what I learned from this great article in Current Affairs magazine. Moderate conservatives and liberals prefer President Jed Bartlett of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, while the right prefers Donald Trump of The Apprentice and FOX News. Hilary Clinton, supported by the media, ran on Jed Bartlett’s platform of intelligence, competence, and moral smugness, while Donald Trump ran on FOX News‘ platform of cynicism, xenophobia, and aggression (read as “security”).

The election wasn’t an election as much as it was a study in what kind of TV shows we like to watch. Those who prefer scripted dramas voted differently from those who prefer “reality” TV.

Except, and this is what’s important from the Current Affairs article, that analysis isn’t true at all. Because reality is neither a scripted drama nor a reality TV show. It sounds trite, and no one would ever argue that it was, but it’s also important to remember: reality is neither a scripted drama nor a reality TV show.

It’s reality, with real live consequences. The people in Syria are not characters in some postmodern multimedia text; transgender people are not characters who’ll soon disappear from some screen; and ex-miners are not going hungry just for the chance to star in some capitalist’s propaganda poster. This shit is real, and it really matters to persons. Decisions made in New York, Washington D.C., London, Paris, Berlin, Beijing, etc. affects real change in the daily experiences of individuals all over the planet and not just in the power dynamics of a popular TV show called Watch the Throne.

In Our Climate Future is Actually Our Climate Present, Jon Mooallem explains that we will not experience climate change as some great calamity, but as a kind of gentrification, with human beings doing what human beings are already doing: putting our heads down and continuing to trudge on, day by day, until we die.

But it’s the job of politics to make trudging through this life just a little bit easier, not just for me and you, but for everyone.

And why wouldn’t it be? If the political truly is personal, then politics is the act of living among your fellow human beings. It’s not a game to be played at the highest professional level; the Democrats and the Republicans are not the Red Sox and the Yankees. They’re two groups of people who claim to stand for specific ways of treating other people.

The Democrats claim to stand for treating each human being with dignity and respect, and they extend that claim to embrace the moral obligation it recommends, that is, to protect and advocate for those who cannot protect or advocate for themselves. This stance does not allow for bullying, but it does allow for righteous indignation, civil (not to be read as peaceful) protest, and a willingness to engage in defensive combat.

It recommends this not just as a form of politics, but as a form of living a life. It accepts the complexity that comes from living in a democratic society where your neighbors, not to mention the millions upon millions of other people whom you don’t know and will never meet, all get a say (at some level) as to how you live your life (if you want to live your life among them, anyway).

In a democratic society as large as ours, where we can’t come to a consensus on a statement as objectively true as “The Earth is not flat,” Democrats claim the only way to interact with each other, in our homes or outside of them, is with dignity and respect and the moral obligation to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

This is not how actual Democrats behave. This is their claim as to the right way to live among your fellow human beings.

The Republicans claim the proper way to act among others is to say Fuck them. This is not the same thing as Fuck youRepublicans are Christians, after all, and good Christians don’t say “Fuck you” to one another. They will say “Fuck you” to them though, just as God said “Fuck you” to all the other thems in the Old Testament: The first-born sons of Egypt? Fuck them. The Sodom and Gomorrah? Fuck them. The Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites? Fuck them. King Ahazia? You’re fired!

But as for the rest of us — those of us who are not them — the Republicans claim we can pretty much do whatever we want.

Want to shoot someone? Make sure they’re not one of us or that you can claim you were protecting yourself; and if you can’t find someone to shoot, join the army and we’ll point your gun in the right direction.

Want to get rich? Go for it, and the best of luck to you. If someone gets in your way, fuck them.

Want to screw a girl? Don’t worry, because they secretly really want it; and if they don’t, well…fuck them.

Heard that there’s someone with an unwanted pregnancy? Fuck them for not being more responsible.

Do what you want. Do what you’re good at. And fuck them if they can’t take it.

Based on everything I’ve seen or read or experienced, that’s what the Republican Party claims is the way we should act among our fellow human beings (again, not fuck you but fuck them).

It sounds like I’m saying the Democrats are angels and the Republicans are devils. I’m not. There are plenty of Democrats who stomp on the backs of the underprivileged and plenty of Republicans who spend their days providing crucial services to those who are suffering, regardless of what the victims look like or believe.

What I am saying is that there is both a Democratic and a Republican claim about how we should act, and they differ from one another. Both are attractive, but for different reasons.

It’s a lot easier to live in a Fuck them world, and it promises to be more interesting: there’s obvious conflict in a Fuck them worldview, and as the ratings for Honey Boo Boo demonstrate, conflict itself is exciting, regardless of its content.

Living in a world where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and where the only sanctioned conflict is against an act of injustice? That sounds predictable and boring.

Except reality is never predictable and boring. It’s difficult to treat people with dignity and respect, and the world is filled with acts of injustice. Ultimately, as the Buddhists have long argued, all life, regardless of race, class, or even species, is struggle, and it provides a near-constant engagement with both internal and external conflicts. If conflict is exciting, then nothing could be more exciting than deeply living one’s life, and at the end of the day, isn’t every life lived deeply by the one who is living it?

This conception of reality, where everyone is fighting both internal and external conflicts almost all the time, founds the Democratic claim that everyone deserves dignity and respect. If everyone is in the middle of some conflict, the last thing we should do is add to their troubles by making them the them of our Fuck them.

The Republicans, on the other hand, tell us not to worry about what they’re going through. Worry about us becoming more safe or economically better off, and fuck them if they get in the way.

Again, I’m not talking about actual Democrats and Republicans here. I’m talking about their advertisements for the way we should live our lives.

Unfortunately, too many people would rather watch Donald Trump say Fuck them than engage with the complexity of trying to actually understand them. And right now, those people are holding the remote control.

Jed Bartlett thinks we should persuade them to give it to us instead. But you can’t persuade someone out of a remote control. There’s only one thing we can do: take it by force, and fuck them if they get in the way.

Pouring Love

 

During the next two months (and then some), I’ll spend around four hours a week working one-on-one with a young person who suffers from schizophrenia. I’ll also spend time with students who are diagnosed with a variety of other social and emotional disorders (not to mention learning disorders), but it’s the student with schizophrenia who will require the most from me.

This young person is almost completely detached from reality. They suffer from delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, catatonic behavior, and disorganized speech. At any given moment, the student might break out into a terrified or stress-induced screaming or crying fit.

But…and this is a big but…this student is perhaps one of the strongest people I’ve ever met because, to some extent, they are aware of how they must appear to other people, and yet, they still come to school every day, and even on their worst days, they fight and struggle to make sure they make it to our building.

Can you imagine knowing — knowing! —  that at some point every day you were going to have a mental, emotional, and physical breakdown, and yet still finding the strength to get out of bed and go to school each day?

This student is incredible. Absolutely incredible. They sing, they paint, they read, they write. And yes, they have harrowing breakdowns, but they also find some reason, every day, to be kind and thoughtful to others, to stand up for themselves and for those they think are wronged, and to be genuinely appreciative of the talents and kindness of those around them. I don’t think more than a day or two has passed without them finding someone else in the school to let that person know how gifted or beautiful they are.

The student is a walking ball of light. It’s just that, sometimes, the light gets very dim. But that’s when it becomes my job — and the job of my colleagues — to help this student find their way out of the dark.

What’s encouraging is that, from what I have seen, the student is treated extremely well by their peers. Those who are too young or too self-involved to understand what’s happening generally stay out of the student’s way, and those who have a sense of what’s happening seem to be very supportive, offering themselves up with a level of kindness and service that impresses me to no end. We recently had to evacuate one of our buildings because the student’s breakdown was so disturbing (our school buildings are pretty small), but none of the other students complained about having to leave their classroom, nor did they hold it against the student once the episode was over. And remember, more than half of the kids at my school are here because they have a history of being unable to get along with others.

The way the student’s peers have stepped up has been amazing and inspiring to watch. That goes for my colleagues as well. In a staff meeting the other day, as we discussed ways to help the student, one of my colleagues summed up our responsibility as, “We need to just pour love on this kid right now.” We’re not doctors or psychologists; we can’t prescribe medication, and while we can effectively provide a layman’s version of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (which the DSM 5 recommends for schizophrenia disorder), we aren’t trained psychologists. We are, however, humans who have decided to spend our days helping the next generation grow into healthy adults, and we can “pour love on this kid.”

I know that the next few weeks (and let’s be honest, months and possibly years) won’t be easy with this student. But to a large extent, I am looking forward to it. While we obviously want this student to get as much help as they can, I also think that with the student body we have and the staff we have, this is also a good and supportive place for them to come every day.

The Personal is Political

Several of my friends on Facebook (all of whom lean conservative, interestingly enough) recently complained about Facebook not being fun anymore because their feeds are full of nothing but politics, politics, politics. As one of them suggested, everyone should “unfollow people who are draining every ounce of your Facebook Fun because they only post political crap you’re tired of hearing about!”

It’s not just my (conservative leaning) friends. You can find plenty of articles on the topic around the web. For example:

Generally speaking, those who make this argument seem to feel that Facebook should be like a friendly reunion where people who don’t see each other very often can share what they’re doing in their lives, gush over photos of each other’s kids, and exchange some good humored ribbing. It’s “a way of hanging out with everyone you ever met, and political ranting makes the whole thing…awkward.”

As you might imagine, I don’t agree with this argument.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve unfollowed friends on Facebook because of their political rants, but it wasn’t because of their political leanings (I greatly appreciate having right-leaning friends who help me stay out of an entirely liberal bubble), nor was it because the ratio between their political posts and their “personal” posts was too high. Instead, it was because these particular friends demonstrated very little ability to act civil with those who disagreed with them.

Provided you can remain civil, and remember that the people you’re talking to are real live people and they have stresses and interests that are different from your own, then I find that there really isn’t a better place for online conversations than Facebook.

Facebook allows you to connect with virtually everyone you’ve ever met, which means you can have conversations with people from college, people from high school, people from that trip you took once, and people from your extended family, all at once. People who maybe don’t ever see each other in person, who may not even know one another, and who live in variety of places around the country or around the world can actually engage in a substantive conversation about a timely topic, should they choose to.

The software itself is perfect for this. You can have threaded conversations with direct replies to people, so you can engage a particular topic from multiple angles, and people can choose to focus on a single, a small subset, or all of the angles. You can include links to supporting articles, including fact-checking services such as Snopes.com. You can tag other friends to invite them into a particular section of the conversation, either to support what you’re saying or to provide an insight that you couldn’t provide on your own. And you can get notifications everytime someone adds a comment to the discussion, ensuring that you don’t miss out on anything important (or funny).

Honestly, Facebook is perfect for these kinds of in-depth conversations.

But that’s not what I want to talk about…not exactly.

There’s a slogan that came out of second-wave Feminism in the 1960s. You’ve probably seen it on a button: “The personal is political.” It comes from the title of an essay by Carol Hanisch published in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation. The essay wasn’t originally given that title because it was written more as an internal memo to members of the women’s liberation movement, but after it got picked up and published, the editors gave it that title.

In the memo, Hanisch argued that the women’s liberation movement had to continue to engage with “apolitical” women through what detractors derisively called therapy” or “personal” groups but what supporters such as Hanisch would go on to call “consciousness-raising groups.” She argued that through their derision of these group sessions, some of the more activist supporters of the movement were pushing away women who desperately needed their support and whose support, in all honesty, the movement desperately needed.

She painted a portrait of what these group sessions were actually like:

We have not done much trying to solve immediate personal problems of women in the group. We’ve mostly picked topics by two methods: In a small group it is possible for us to take turns bringing questions to the meeting (like, Which do/did you prefer, a girl or a boy baby or no children, and why? What happens to your relationship if your man makes more money than you? Less than you?). Then we go around the room answering the questions from our personal experiences. Everybody talks that way. At the end of the meeting we try to sum up and generalize from what’s been said and make connections.

She went on to argue that through these sessions, she was “forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman.” The sessions gave her “a gut understanding of everything, as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings [she] had in ‘other people’s’ struggles.”

Women didn’t attend the meetings “to solve any personal problem. One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems [emphasis added]. There are no personal solutions at this time,” she continues. “There is only collective action for a collective solution.”

What does this have to do with not being political on Facebook?

If I show you a picture of my daughter scaling a rock wall at our local climbing gym, you can sit back for a moment, smile, click “Like,” and move on. But what have you and I just done?

First, we ignored all of the injustice in the world. We said to ourselves, “We are comfortable right now, so let’s just smile at each other for a moment, and then move on.” It’s the mental, emotional, and spiritual equivalent of running into each other at a coffee shop, smiling at each other, and moving on.

But I don’t want to just smile at you as we pass each other by at a coffee shop. If I’m friends with you on Facebook, it’s not just because I met you once. It’s because in some real and authentic way, I want to consider you my friend. There’s a real chance that we actually are friends, like in real life, and if we’re not, then there’s a real chance that at some point, if only for a few minutes, in real life, we actually were, and if we weren’t, however I know you, if you’re my friend on Facebook, it’s because at some point in my life, I thought about you and was actually willing to call you, in all honesty, my “friend.”

I don’t want to run into one of my friends at a coffee shop and simply nod and smile. I want to stop and talk for a little while.

And I get it, not everyone wants to talk politics, and most of the time, not everyone wants to talk about the world’s injustices. But the people I want to call my friends are willing, at least some of the time, to really get into it.

I went back to the town where I grew up last weekend to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the Irish side of my family….or so I thought. To my complete surprise, my brother invited his best friend (a second-generation Italian) and his best friend’s family to the party as well. I couldn’t have been happier. There hasn’t been a minute in my life when I haven’t known this guy, and in my childhood, I saw very little difference between him and my brothers: like them, he was always there, and he usually treated me with love.

But this is a guy I don’t see as often as my brothers, so when he came walking in the door, it was like being surprised by a long-lost brother who I hadn’t spoken with in forever.

Let me set the stage for a moment. This man is a physical education teacher (and I stress the word teacher) in a Catholic preparatory school for high-school age boys. He’s a dedicated Ironman whose idea of a dream vacation is to bike the route of the Tour de France. He’s a regular churchgoer whose coworkers are ministers, and he feels that Christian charity is not a thing you give money to but a thing you actually do in your daily life, a way to be.

He also voted for Donald Trump.

Within moments of his arrival, he approached me in the corner of the kitchen and without missing a beat, engaged me in a substantive conversation that ranged from God to transgenderism to television shows to the art of teaching to the meaning of friendship to the power of plays. We spent most of the night together, joined by our wives at points, my brothers and cousins at others, our daughters at still others. It was great.

At no point did we shy from discussing politics. I’m not talking about partisan politics. Neither of us are firmly committed to either the Republican or Democratic party. True, when forced to vote for them, we often (if not always) vote for opposite parties, but when we do, we do so with clear enough eyes that we understand why other people would have justifiable concerns about our chosen candidates. I don’t think either of us would give a full-throated defense of either party.

When I say we didn’t shy from discussing politics, what I mean is that we didn’t shy from disagreeing with each other based on a disagreement in principles. We understand the strength of our relationship, and so we’re able to challenge each other without the other having to take offense. We know that each of us are dedicated to growing as human beings, and if we disagree with each other and challenge each other, it’s only because we care for one another and want the other one to continue to grow.

If I show you a picture of my daughter scaling a rock wall at our local climbing gym, and I follow it five minutes later with a link to an article on white male privilege or to the specific details of a law being proposed in Congress or to an analysis of our President’s ties with a foreign power, it’s because I want to do more that just show you pictures of my kid. It’s because I also want to challenge you as a human being, and to provide a signal to you that I would like to be challenged as well. The hope is that, through our conversations, we can each grow into something better than we currently are, which often comes from exposing ourselves to new and sometimes contrarian ideas.

The best thing we each could do with a “political post” on Facebook would not be to click “Like” and simply move on, which would be like running into each other at a coffee shop and just throwing pamphlets in each other’s faces.

The best thing to do would be to — at some point — read the article the other person shared, or if we don’t have the attention span for that, to at least look at the headline and then ask a question about it. Through that interaction, we start to earn (or renew our committment to) the word “friend.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I can’t be friends with anyone who doesn’t read every article I share or leave a comment on every post I write.

What I am saying is that if you think Facebook is more for personal stuff than political stuff, then you need to understand that the personal is political. By closing your eyes to anything you might disagree with, you’re committing a political act, one that commits you to remaining the same forever and forever, while also committing you to accept (and thus tacitly defend) the status quo, injustices and all.

If I’m friends with you on Facebook, it’s because I either am or want to be your friend in real life. That doesn’t mean always giving you a shoulder to cry on (though of course I would if you needed me to), but it does mean always giving you my willingness to get into it with you, even if sometimes I have to be the one who starts it.

What’s more personal than being willing to engage with one another from places of differing principle? And since I can’t see you everyday, and so few of us actually write emails (let alone letters) anymore, and since texting definitely isn’t a good tool for in-depth discussions, why wouldn’t the serindepity of running into each on Facebook be the perfect place to connect?

Some might suggest it would be more appropriate to take those conversations to someplace more private (Facebook Messenger?), but there’s a commitment to a private conversation that we’re not always willing to have. It’d be like if we ran into each other in a coffee shop and I said, “Hey, why don’t we go sit in the front seat of my car and catch up?” That would have the chance of becoming weird, right? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for us to keep our conversation in the public/private space of the coffee shop, where if someone we both know happens to stumble in, we can increase participation in the conversation, and where we can also remain safely in the public eye, forcing us both to be on our best behavior?

I honestly can’t think of a better tool for allowing the personal to become political. And that’s why I’ll keep talking to my friends on Facebook the way I talk to all of my friends: with a love for conversation and committment to helping each other grow.

There’s nothing more personal, and nothing more political, than that.

They Can’t Get No…

I’m trying to figure out what a person needs to be satisfied. I’m thinking about this for a couple of reasons. One, because I know several people who are not satisfied in their lives and they’ve come to me for help, and two, because we have a problem in this world with our wealthy class seemingly not being able to feel that enough is ever enough, and I’d like to understand why.

Generally speaking, I’m a very happy man.

What contributes to my happiness? First and foremost, of course, is my family. My wife truly is my best friend, and while we annoy each other to no end and snipe at each other about household chores as much as any other married couple, we also love to have intellectually and emotionally stimulating conversations that help each of us grow together as human beings.

My four-year-old daughter, obviously, makes me happy.

I also have good relationships with my extended family. The fact that I live in a different state from them helps — as George Burns once said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family living in another city.” I love all of them with all my heart, and I enjoy spending time with them whenever we get the chance, but I also enjoy not having to deal with the daily drama that would come from all of us being together for too long.

The second thing that contributes to my happiness is my job. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t go into the details, but from a general perspective, what makes the job so satisfying is that it is deeply and authentically meaningful to me. My company has a mission that speaks to my passions, and my input on the best way to achieve that mission is truly valued by my employer and my peers. Virtually any responsibility or task I want to take on is made available to me, allowing me to improve my skills and my understanding, and if things become too overwhelming, my colleagues are willing to let me adjust as necessary.

Could my wife and I make more money? Of course, but if we didn’t have our student loans and weren’t concerned about retirement or our daughter’s college tuition, we’d basically be making as much money as we’d need, so I don’t have much room to complain.

The third thing is my community. I live in a rural village of about 3,500 people. My wife works in the public middle school, so she knows virtually everyone, and we’ve lived in town going on 15 years, so essentially every face is a familiar face. It’s also a community where our friends are consciously thinking about and acting out the very concept of community — i.e., most of them are academics (even if not in an official sense) whose fields of interest somehow relate to the idea of creating a vibrant local ecology, human or otherwise — which means they try their best to stay connected to one another, to spend quality time with one another, and to support and inspire one another.

Family, career, and community. That’s what makes me such a satisfied person. My friends who are unsatisfied often find one of them is lacking. The challenge comes when the pursuit of satisfaction in one of those areas risks your satisfaction in the others. For example, if you don’t find meaning in your job but your family loves your community, do you take the risk of accepting a more fulfilling job someplace else?

When it comes to the 1%, however, I’m completely at a loss.

There’s a book I haven’t read yet (but is now on my “to read” list) called The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic ThinkersWhile researching for this post, I found an interesting selection from it, which reads:

The idea of gain, the idea that each working person not only may, but should, constantly strive to better his or her material lot, is an idea that was quite foreign to the great lower and middle strata of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and medieval cultures, only scattered throughout Renaissance and Reformation times; and largely absent in the majority of Eastern civilizations. As an ubiquitous characteristic of society, it is as modern an invention as printing.

Apparently (according the author anyway), until the rise of the market economy in the 18th century, the vast majority of human beings did not even consider the possibility that through discipline and hard work they could improve their material lives, which would make sense given the feudal nature of the economy and a pervasive religious dogma that valued striving for success in the afterlife rather than success in the here and now.

It’s not until the market economy comes along that people start to get the sense that they can actually improve their lot in life, provided they can put in the time and effort to do so.

I’m not going to talk here about the flaws in this particular theory, neither the part that says people didn’t strive to improve their lives prior to the market economy nor with the part that suggests that all it takes to become wealthy is a healthy dose of Protestant work ethic.

What I will do is talk about the natural desire of homo sapiens to protect what they think is theirs and to pursue what they think could be, both of which prioritize the future over the present. In the future, we want to keep what we already have. And in the future, we want to get what, by all rights, can be gotten.

But when do we stop looking over our shoulder to see what might be coming for us and stop looking at the horizon to see what we might be approaching, and instead look our lives up and down to see if everything we already have is actually all we’ll ever need?

In other words, what drives a billionaire like Donald Trump to do yet another “big deal” that will net him millions of dollars? What drives bankers to screw over millions of homeowners just to put more money in their already overly filled pockets? What drives a company like ExxonMobil — which (even with a recent 50% drop in profits) still generates more profits than virtually every other company in human history — what drives them to choose their financial bottom line over and above their social and environmental ones? What drives a Russian oligarch who already has billions of dollars to rob his fellow citizens of whatever wealth they can generate? What motivates a sitting member of Congress (most of whom are millionaires) to sell out his or her constituents to the highest bidder?

One of the world’s richest richest men, Carlos Slim, told Larry King that his motivation was not to make money, but to fulfill his vocation for numbers. He said, “When you have a vocation for numbers, you have many activities, and you will develop yourself professionally…I like investments, creation of investments and economic activities that come with investments.” The world’s richest man, Bill Gates, said that, “You’ve got to enjoy what you do every day, and for me that’s working with very smart people, it’s working with new problems.” The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote recently that what motivates him and his team is “developing the social infrastructure for community — for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”

Are we to understand that the wealthy continue to generate wealth because they’re passionate about something whose byproduct is wealth? That might be true for some.

But how does that explain an already wealthy political leader who knowingly does harm through his or her actions just to put more money in his or her pocket? How does that explain billionaires such as the Koch brothers actively working to destroy the environment for the sake of their bottom line? How does that explain a billionaire in Texas lobbying for six years for the right to store nuclear waste on top of a number of aquifers?

I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to understand people like that.

Trying to Money Like An Adult

I’m not good with money.

True: I own a house and lease a car, and I’ve got a savings account for my daughter’s education, so I’m not as bad with our money as millions of other people around the globe.

But still, like most Americans, we basically live paycheck to paycheck, and my family is a single unexpected disaster away from not being able to make ends meet (luckily, my wife and I both have very supportive parents, so if we needed the help, I’m confident they would offer it — but still, that’s not what you want as an adult, right?).

It’s kind of silly because my wife and I are both employed full-time as experienced teachers, and I have a second job working as a relatively well-paid adjunct at a local college.  According to the Pew Research Center, we are firmly in the middle income-tier in Vermont.

Most of our income goes to paying down our debt in the form of student loans (20%) and credit cards (19%). The mortgage eats up another 13% each month. The rest goes to a car payment, plus regular obligations like heat, electricity, water, groceries, subscriptions, etc. (and way too much of it goes to dining out).

I’m trying to get a handle on all of this. The main driver is the need to make repairs on the house. We got water damage in our bedroom ceilings a couple of years back; the slate steps on our front porch are falling in on themselves; and the slate roof needs some repair. The kitchen needs work too, but that’s a major overhaul that is years down the road.

The secondary reason is because I want to make sure the family can weather whatever unexpected disaster ends up happening to us (where “disaster” is defined by the need to drop more than $400 on an unexpected service or item).

To help us accomplish our goals, I’ve started using two different tools.

The first is YNAB, which stands for You Need A Budget. Prior to YNAB, I used Mint, but the budgeting tools on Mint didn’t help as much. Mint’s budgeting tools revealed where we spent our money, but it didn’t provide any tools to help us change our spending habits.

YNAB, on the other hand, requires us to be more active with our budgeting. I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered the process, but I’m definitely more engaged with it, which is a start. The rules powering YNAB are simple:

  1. Give every dollar a job.
  2. Embrace your true expenses.
  3. Roll with the punches.
  4. Age your money.

I’m still trying to figure out the best way to comply with Rule #1, but the important part is that I’m actively working on it.

The second tool I’m using is called Qapital. Qapital is basically a savings account, but it uses customizable rules to trigger my bank to transfer money into our Qapital account.

One of the rules we use rounds up every transaction we make using our debit cards to the nearest $2 and transfers the difference into our savings account. Another rule transfers $1 for every article I read using the Pocket app (i.e., I pay myself to finish reading long articles). Yet another one transfers $25 for every post I write here on my blog (i.e., I’m paying myself to blog).

But we don’t just save money every time we do something. I can also save money when we don’t do something. For example, I usually spend around $30 a week on my lunches. I absolutely DO NOT want to be doing this, and yet, come lunch time, I still find myself slipping next door to the school to get a slice of pizza. So, to help motivate me not to do this, I set up a rule so that if I spend less than $15 a week at the pizza place, the difference gets transferred into my savings.

I’m still not killing it when it comes to managing our money, but with YNAB and Qapital, I feel like we’re making a lot more progress than we ever have before.

The real test will come this summer. Will we have enough money to do repairs on the house? Will a successful use of Rule #4 on YNAB mean that the money we spend each day was actually generated more than 30 days prior? I don’t know for sure, but I’m working to make it so.